Page last updated at 10:22 GMT, Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Expenses soap opera dominated Westminster headlines

Political life in 2009 at Westminster was dominated by one story. BBC NI Political Reporter Stephen Walker looks back.

This year was dominated by the E word - expenses.

MPs in House of Commons
The issue of MPs' expenses dominated the headlines

It was a story that ripped through the corridors of Westminster and the country like a tornado. For weeks, little else dominated the headlines.

Everyone had an opinion and people previously uninterested in politics found themselves drawn to the latest revelations. It resembled a soap opera, with each new storyline adding a twist to the previous day's offering.

At the height of the coverage, DUP leader Peter Robinson declared: "I think if MPs slept on a park bench and starved themselves that would still be too much for some people."

His frustration was shared by many other MPs across the political spectrum. One Conservative MP admitted that she felt suicidal. One veteran Labour MP said the affair prompted him to announce he was leaving parliament. He would not be alone.

All the local parties found themselves caught up in the stories.

The London hotel bills of SDLP MP Eddie McGrady were scrutinised and he had to return £3,000. Sinn Fein's five abstentionist MPs faced criticism for receiving rent for two London properties. They subsequently ended the property lease.

The largest Northern Ireland party at Westminster, the DUP, had to return the biggest amount of expenses relating to items such as furniture and accommodation.

The Ulster Unionists' sole MP, Lady Hermon, was originally asked to repay some of her claims. However, subsequent inquiries showed that the Commons authorities had made an error and no repayment was necessary.

Commons speaker John Bercow
NI MPs played their part in the election of speaker John Bercow

The expenses scandal was not the only story that put Northern Ireland's MPs on the front pages.

Throughout 2009, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness trudged endlessly to London to discuss the devolution of policing and justice with the prime minister.

Gordon Brown may not have expected such intensive and complicated negotiations which ended with the UK government setting aside around £1bn. Although that story is not finished yet.

There were other examples of joint political efforts.

All parties tried to help out members of the Presbyterian Mutual Society and others caught up in the credit crunch.

There was also much lobbying for more money for the executive and Northern Ireland was spared a predicted cut to its block grant.

NI's MPs also played their role in the election of a new Commons speaker.

Lady Hermon told the BBC that she was asked to stand for the position but declined.

SDLP MP Mark Durkan was one of those who backed the eventual winner, Conservative MP John Bercow.

Westminster
The forthcoming election will dominate Westminster headlines in 2010

The cross-party Northern Ireland affairs committee that includes MPs Iris Robinson, David Simpson, Lady Hermon and Alasdair McDonnell carried out a series of investigations, including inquiries into the Omagh bombing, local broadcasting and the Eames Bradley report.

Despite the press coverage and the public cynicism that 2009 generated, those MPs who routinely took the flight from Belfast to Heathrow endeavoured to show that Westminster still mattered.

For 16 out of our local 18 MPs the journey to London was made as they combined other duties at Stormont.

That position of dual mandates or 'double jobbing' as it is known came in for scrutiny from Sir Christopher Kelly in November when he reviewed MPs' allowances and expenses.

He wants the practice to cease. In the next few months many of our politicians will have to decide where their political future lies. The electorate will have their say too.

If 2009 was dominated by the E word, expenses - another E word will hold our attention in 2010 - election.



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